Taken literally, the answer to the question posed by this article’s title is: yes. New research from Catalyst and Harvard Business School (HBS) shows the strong connection between having more women on boards and in executive management and “greater corporate social responsibility.” While these findings focus on philanthropy or corporate giving as the key indicator of corporate social responsibility, this information should be considered just the beginning of the ways corporations will benefit from having more women, and in all ranks.

In this two-part article, I’ll first discuss what was learned through the Catalyst/HBS research and the questions that could use further study. In the second part (to publish next month), I’ll look more closely at what women bring to the table in terms of CSR development, and how your business can put this knowledge to its best use.

Catalyst is an organization that has long published excellent research toward better understanding women in the workforce and in business leadership. This includes their 2009 study, Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives, from which insight on engaging conventional business thinkers with sustainability can also be gained. Catalyst’s most recent study, conducted in partnership with the Harvard Business School, Gender and Corporate Social Responsibility: It’s A Matter of Sustainability, continues that tradition. As the study’s co-authors note, prior research “has established that companies with the highest representation of women leaders financially outperform, on average, companies with the lowest.” With these latest findings, Catalyst and HBS offer convincing evidence that gender-inclusive leadership goes beyond financials.

First, the study found that levels of corporate giving or involvement in philanthropy, which HBS research had already established as the most visible form of CSR in the United States, were notably higher with more women as Board Directors or as corporate officers. Specifically, in 2007, annual company contributions were 28 times higher in companies with gender diverse boardrooms (3 or more women directors) and 13 times higher in companies with gender diverse leadership teams (25% or more women corporate officers). For the ten-year period of 1997-2007, each additional female board director increased annual philanthropic giving by $2.3 million, and for each percentage increase in the presence of women Corporate Officers, annual philanthropic giving increased by $5.7 million. These numbers make a pretty convincing case.

But, there are two more subtleties in this research worth noting:

1) CSR, in some form, is now expected by stakeholders on a more mass scale, or Catalyst and HBS wouldn’t be spending time and money studying it.


2) This study, combined with other research that connected gender-inclusive leadership and environmental responsibility, begs the question (as the authors note): do companies committed to CSR attract more diverse leaders or… does having a more gender-diverse leadership lead to increases in CSR?

While the Catalyst/HBS study presents fairly basic findings, it cracks the door open on very interesting possibilities. For instance, if philanthropic giving is merely a baseline indicator of women’s connection with CSR, imagine what else may emerge from further study. And, let’s acknowledge that those companies that have already paid attention to gender inclusivity are likely to be much further ahead on the CSR curve, while many other companies still scramble to get started.

The Catalyst/HBS research on the ties between women, philanthropy and CSR should re-invigorate the attention corporations place on hiring and advancing more women, which is important.  However, there is a danger in stopping there. What is it about the way women think, make decisions, and “do business” that is so crucial here? When we think about building sustainable corporations, why is gender inclusiveness so important and how can we best address imbalances? Is the answer to simply hire more women?

These are some of the questions I’ll explore in Part 2.